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Why Michigan State Will or Won't Make the College Football Playoff in 2018

Michigan State CB Justin Layne

Michigan State CB Justin Layne

The Big Ten certainly has its share of College Football Playoff contenders in the 2018 season. But while Ohio State and Michigan grab most of the attention and Penn State states its case for inclusion in the playoff discussion, the Michigan State Spartans are once again preparing to embrace the underdog mentality that suits them so well.

Michigan State Spartans head coach Mark Dantonio

With a roster loaded with returning starters and a schedule that brings some key division opponents to Spartan Stadium this fall, why not consider Michigan State as a dark horse playoff contender? Michigan State has a track record of creeping their way onto the playoff radar and hopes to make the second playoff trip in school history. With a few things going their way, Michigan State could emerge as a legitimate playoff contender, but will enough things go their way to make that happen in 2018?

Three Reasons Why Michigan State Will Make the College Football Playoff in 2018

1. So many returning starters

There is something to be said for a team bringing back as many starters on both sides of the football as Michigan State will this season. With 19 returning starters, the Spartans shouldn’t have much of a transition going on this season and that should allow them to continue where they left off.

2. Michigan State’s defense is no joke

Last year, Michigan State owned the nation’s seventh-best total defensive unit and the Spartans were second in the FBS against the run. Those trends should continue this season with nine returning starters. Throwing against Michigan State should be a challenge with an experienced secondary all back for another fall as Michigan State looks to bring the no-fly zone back to life.

3. Ohio State and Michigan at home

The Spartans play in one of the more challenging divisions in college football, but this year they will get two key Big Ten East games in East Lansing. Ohio State comes to Spartan Stadium for an extreme revenge and pride situation for Sparty after an embarrassing loss last year. The Wolverines also come to town for the in-state rivalry matchup. Splitting those two games is not unrealistic, although 2-0 would be huge.

Three Reasons Why Michigan State Will Not Make the College Football Playoff in 2018

1. A teriffic team, but talent gap may show

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According to the 247Sports composite rankings, Michigan State has had the Big Ten’s sixth-ranked recruiting class each of the past two seasons. This year, the gap in talent coming into the program may prove to be a difference-maker. Mark Dantonio certainly has a group of players that will play great together, but when push comes to shove and a game needs one more play to be made, there may be a couple of opponents who may be more likely to make it. One or two plays can have a dramatic impact on any given season outlook.

2. Defensive line depth

Michigan State’s starting defensive front may be among the best in the Big Ten this season, but the depth should be a bit of a concern. Defensive tackle may not be an issue, but defensive end will be. The Spartans have one starting spot to fill from last year’s team and the arsenal isn’t quite as deep as the Spartans would like at the position. You may not be able to run straight at Michigan State, but you may be able to get around the edges.

3. Did we mention the division is really tough?

Because it is. Not only do the Spartans have to find some wins against Ohio State and Michigan at home, but Michigan State must also travel to Happy Valley to play a Penn State team looking for revenge from last season. The Nittany Lions also get a bye week to prepare for the game. If Michigan State is going to win the division, it likely has to win no fewer than two of those games, and that is no easy task. That doesn’t even take into account a crossover schedule that includes a game against pesky Northwestern and a road trip to a potentially revitalized Nebraska.

Final Verdict

Underestimating what Mark Dantonio and Michigan State can do in any given year is unwise. With home games against Ohio State and Michigan, the schedule offers an opportunity for the Spartans to remain in and perhaps slide in the driver’s seat in the Big Ten East under the right conditions. But managing to escape the division schedule unscathed will be a tall order for the Spartans (and any Big Ten East team for that matter), so it looks as though Michigan State’s best bet will be to wiggle into a New Year's Six bowl game outside of the playoff. That may be the more realistic best-case scenario this season in East Lansing.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Michigan State

Athlon’s Projected Final Ranking: 12

Athlon’s Projected Final Record: 9-3 (6-3, Big Ten)

Bovada Projected Over/Under Odds: 9

5 Dimes Over/Under Odds: 9

-- Written by Kevin McGuire, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. McGuire also contributes to College Football Talk and The Comeback as well as hosts the No 2-Minute Warning Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @KevinOnCFB and Like him on Facebook.